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New York City: Five Years After 9/11
By Peter Feuerherd
Five years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, survivors discuss that fateful day and how it changed their lives.

Q U I C K S C A N

Unable to Forget
Those Left Behind
Still Dealing With That Day
Goodness Prevails
The Role of Faith
Moving On

Photo © iStockphoto.com/ Jennifer Trenchard

It was a different kind of Ash Wednesday, Inspector James Luongo of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) remembers. Luongo, 47, has the command of Catholic language of a seminary professor, combined with the gravelly tones of a city cop right out of the first half hour of a Law and Order episode.

He remembers the priest intoning, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” He remembers looking around the drab late winter scene in 2002 at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, New York, where he supervised hundreds of workers who moved the remains of the World Trade Center to one of the highest points on the eastern coast of the United States, piled high with garbage.

If ever the Church’s symbolism was apt, it’s here, Luongo thought. That crew, before their assignment ended in June 2002, sifted through 1.8 million tons of debris, 4,257 human remains, 54,000 personal items and 4,000 photographs, helping in the identification of more than 200 dead over six months. All around was dust, the visible reminder of mortality. He experienced Ash Wednesday every day of the week for close to 10 months.

Luongo, a former catechist at his Staten Island parish, is quick to see Catholic symbols in his own 9/11 experience and the grim work that followed at the landfill. He processes the experience in the language of police work and in his affinity for his Catholic faith.

“It was a corporal work of mercy,” he recalls, remembering the long process of identifying the dead and escorting family members through the rubble. Twice a week, the families would come, and he’d whisper a prayer that he and his fellow workers—representing the F.B.I., C.I.A., NYPD and even those from the Department of Agriculture, there to chase the seagulls away—would be able to withstand the emotional pressure. They were regular eyewitnesses to raw grief.

“It was a walk with God,” Luongo remembers.

Unable to Forget

That walk for him actually began with a desperate sprint. On the day of 9/11, Luongo, like most of the New York City police force, was on the scene at the World Trade Center doing his job. As the second tower collapsed, he ran for his life alongside a fire department chaplain. As they ran, Luongo asked for and received absolution.

On one level, God seemed far away on that eerily bright late summer’s day that changed the world. Evil had a field day. But for those who survived, God’s presence remains.

Like much of the rest of the country, church attendance around New York spiked during the weeks after 9/11. Those numbers have gone down to normal as the years have progressed. Still, if there are no atheists in foxholes, as the cliché goes, even those survivors who don’t describe themselves as particularly religious still contemplate God’s role in their lives.

They report that outsiders would sympathize, offering consolation for enduring a terrorist strike. But their sympathy was often misplaced. One common question for the survivors is why they are the lucky ones, while nearly 3,000 friends and acquaintances perished on a day many would like to forget, but are simply unable.

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Those Left Behind

One such survivor is Claribel Made, 30, of the Bronx, New York, who worked at a brokerage firm at 5 World Trade Center on 9/11. The building was adjacent to the towers and was quickly evacuated. She saw death literally pour down from the skies, as people jumped off the towers onto the pavement. A man in front of her was torn apart by glass falling from the buildings and died instantly.

She survived, but not without battling the demons from that day. For weeks, Made slept with her sneakers on, ready to make a quick escape. Distrusting the safety of tall buildings, she left her 14th-floor Bronx apartment for her parents’ home.

She has now moved back to her apartment and works for a different firm in midtown Manhattan. Yet to this day, she never leaves work at 5 p.m., preferring to let the rush-hour crowds subside.

Yvonne Robinson, 42, is another survivor is who left New York soon after 9/11. She now works for the city of Palm Coast, Florida, where she lives with her mother. Five years ago, she was an office worker for the Port Authority, the New York/New Jersey agency that built the World Trade Center.

On 9/11, she walked with her co-workers down more than 80 flights of stairs, just eight years after the first terrorist attack on the building damaged the office where she used to work. Some of her co-workers never made it out.

“It was a sign from God that it was time for me to go,” she says about why she made the decision to leave New York City. Surviving two acts of terrorism was enough.

Occasionally, she says, particularly when the events are rebroadcast on news programs, “I do feel saddened and overwhelmed to the point of tears.” That terrible day comes back to her in occasional bouts of nervousness and fear. For example, when the building in Florida where she worked experienced a blackout, Robinson ran in panic, as the memories of the attacks on 9/11 came flooding back.

Helen Dollard of Staten Island was not at the World Trade Center on 9/11. But the attacks cost the life of her son, Neil, a 28-year-old brokerage worker. He was the youngest of her five children.

Like many 9/11 survivors, Dollard wonders about the justice of being alive while so many others perished.

“It’s hard for me as a mother to say why I am still here at age 68,” she says. “Neil never had a chance to get married and raise a family and have the life I had.”

She coped in large part through meetings of survivors at Mount Manresa Retreat House, a Jesuit facility on Staten Island that housed workers at the landfill and provided counseling and support for families affected by 9/11. (Staten Island, New York City’s most suburban-like borough, is home to many brokerage workers, firefighters and police officers, groups greatly affected by the World Trade Center destruction.)

Dollard found that sharing her grief with those who understood aided her recovery.

Still Dealing With That Day

The staff at Manresa pitched in immediately, like many church agencies around the city. For a short while, the bridges off the island were closed for security reasons, and tourists were stranded, unable to reach the airports, which were also shut down.

The retreat house provided shelter at that time, as well as later for the out-of-town workers at the Staten Island landfill. Mount Manresa is still filled with memorials to those who died and personal thank-yous from those who were helped.

Five years later, 9/11 remains a vivid memory to most New Yorkers. Movies have been made. Investigations have produced studies. Two wars have been launched in response to those events. Television commentators are sure to pronounce about the significance of 9/11 as the fifth anniversary approaches this year. Still, some New Yorkers who experienced or saw the destruction of 9/11 are reluctant to talk.

“I am still dealing with it,” explains a Franciscan priest who ministered to rescue workers on a regular basis, declining an interview.

“I don’t talk about what I saw,” says a Long Island volunteer fireman who worked on the long lines taking material and body parts out of the collapsed buildings just days after the attacks.

Goodness Prevails

Others grasp for theological language to reflect their own feelings. Luongo likes to point out that, while evil seemingly triumphed on 9/11, he prefers to look at the goodness that became routine in the weeks and months afterward.

First, he saw goodness in the families who came to the landfill, offering their thanks readily to those who labored there.

“These people had horrific losses in their lives,” he notes. Yet, he says, “They would be so concerned about us.”

Anyone who was there knows that New York was a different place in the months afterward. It was said that nearly everyone, in what is a huge and often unwieldy place, at least knew of someone directly affected. Grief made the city, for a short time, into a kind of battered small town where feelings were shared and prayers were offered among intimate friends.

The response was visible. Manhattan was filled with shrines to the dead, candles burning in their honor. Firehouses were swamped with tokens of thanks for rescue efforts that ended in the deaths of hundreds of firefighters. Some noticed the particularly Catholic shrine symbolism in a city that, while known for urbane secularism, remains heavily Catholic and Jewish.

Besides the religious rituals, it was a time of good works, both publicized and non-publicized.

A Long Island volunteer fireman—who did not want to be identified because he did not want his actions to appear any greater than what his fellow volunteers did—spent many days at the funerals of firefighters, professionals from the city who died on 9/11. It didn’t matter that he was a part-time firefighter, not a professional, or that he was borrowing time from his business in Manhattan. He was needed because the families of the victims wanted their presence and there were not enough FDNY firefighters available to attend the hundreds of funerals that took place in waves around the outer boroughs and into the Long Island suburbs.

“You had to show the line of blue. The families needed to see the lines of blue. It didn’t matter what fire department they represented,” says the volunteer.

Survivors remember the little acts of kindness that helped them get through their ordeal.

Made said she couldn’t have gotten through it without the help of her parents and a friend who came from Florida to be with her for a few weeks. Going back to work three days later, being with people who experienced the same thing, also helped.

Within a few months, she was able to go out to dinner—a personal milestone. It was a small triumph, but something she could never have done without the help of family and friends. “I don’t take anyone for granted anymore,” she says.

Robinson says that, ever since 9/11, she is more concerned about family members, checking on them regularly to make sure they are O.K. Every night that she comes in late from work, she checks on her mother to make sure she is well. It is a habit she formed only after the towers fell.

The Role of Faith

Some survivors say the experience has brought them closer to God in a formal, religious sense. Dollard, a Catholic, spent many years away from the Church. Yet, at her son’s memorial service, she felt a closeness—a sense that through the prayer and rituals he was right beside her—that stirred her to become a regular churchgoing Catholic.

She joined a Scripture group at her parish, Holy Rosary on Staten Island. Besides her garden, she says, church is the one place “where I feel at peace.” Soon after Neil’s death, she picked up The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism and began reeducating herself about her faith. Her son’s death, she says, has made her more aware of her own mortality and spiritual well-being.

“I know that Neil’s death wasn’t intended to help me regain my spirituality,” she says. “But I am getting older in life and will not go on forever. I am now better prepared for what will come after.”

Not everyone has the same kind of revelation about the need for formal religious practice. Robinson and Made, for example, note that they are not regular churchgoers, although Made, raised a Catholic in an immigrant family from the Dominican Republic, has found comfort in an evangelical church she attends.

Made, a single woman, admits to being angry at God soon after 9/11. It was an anger mixed with her survivor anxiety. “I was angry for the children left behind without their parents. Why didn’t I die? I didn’t have any children.”

Robinson says that she has been drawn closer to God, even if that closeness is not always expressed in a formal religious setting. She occasionally attends a Palm Coast Methodist church with her mother, and she prays regularly.

Her life is busy. She maintains two jobs, bought a house and is engaged to get married. The crowded New York streets and her tiny Brooklyn apartment are faint memories. She now basks in the warmth of the Florida sun in a quiet suburban town. The change in scenery has helped.

Luongo is still in New York doing his police work, tracking down suspects from his lower Manhattan precinct, not too far from what is now a giant hole in the ground at the World Trade Center. He made room for a talk with a reporter in between attending his daughter’s softball games and investigating a brutal New York murder, the kind that enlivens the tabloids for a day or two.

He is convinced that prayer helped him cope during the 10 months he spent at the landfill. This was unprecedented work. No one in history had ever attempted to move the remains of such colossal buildings.

But Luongo believes that the decisions that were made, done in a spirit of prayer and reflection, turned out the right way. As much as was possible, the corporal work of mercy of disposing of the dead in a proper manner took place at that Staten Island landfill.

“It became a very trusting experience. I knew that, if I prayed, we would have help with the decisions we made,” he says.

Moving On

Some commentators after 9/11 concluded that the country would never return to life as normal. No longer would little things matter much amidst the turmoil of a world gone seemingly mad brought directly to sheltered American shores. But at least one spiritual counselor active at the time has concluded that they were wrong. The survivors can attest that much of life goes on as normal. There are baptisms, weddings, rituals that accompany life's joyous times.

“Life triumphs and evil is not winning,” says the counselor, who has found that those New Yorkers who suffered through the nation's worst catastrophe have now gone on with their lives.

“This is the type of thing you never get over but you will get used to it. You will experience joy in your lives again. I believe that. That is the nature of grace,” he says. If the past five years have proved anything, it is that the gloom of Ash Wednesday atop a garbage dump does not last forever.


Peter Feuerherd is a New York freelance writer and author of Holy Land USA: A Catholic Ride Through America’s Evangelical Landscape (Crossroad).


Remembering 9/11: Find ways to remember the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in our special feature.

 


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